Songwriters sometimes meet in the oddest of circumstances. Paul McCartney and John Lennon met as teenagers when McCartney attended a concert of Lennon’s early band, The Quarrymen. Crosby, Stills and Nash met at either Mama Cass Elliot or Joni Mitchell’s home, depending on who is asked. The folk duo of Twin Flames, Chelsea June and Jaaji, owe their love and relationship to a television series on indigenous musicians produced by Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
“We met in Quebec City, where the show was being filmed,” Chelsea June said. “It was around a campfire. Everyone was singing. The crew—everyone was jamming along with music. Jaaji was singing a cover song that I just happened to know. We hadn’t even been introduced to each other yet.”
Jaaji (pronounced “Yah-yee”) said the cover song was the acoustic version of Staind’s “Outside,” which he said was “the only cover song I really knew how to play.” The two stayed in touch following the APTN appearance.
“He came to visit me a few months later for music,” June said. “And then it turned into us spending the rest of our lives together.”
The two songwriters come from different backgrounds. For the most part, Jaaji (Inuk/Mohawk) was raised by his maternal grandparents of the Nunavik community.
“A lot of the stuff that I do write about is how I was raised culturally strong by my grandparents—living on the land hunting, fishing, and the respect people taught for the land, nature and the animals,” he said.
June (Algonquin/Cree Metis) learned about her indigenous heritage later in life, which had a deep impact on her music.
“When I finally did embark on that journey, I was meeting with elders and reconnecting with my roots,” she said.
However, their songwriting influences are similar, with both of them being well versed in 60’s-70’s singer-songwriters that include Simon and Garfunkel, Carly Simon, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The two songwriters found success with solo albums first. Jaaji’s Inuktitut language album Nunaga won Canada’s Indigenous Music Award for Best Indigenous Language Album in 2015, while June’s EP Finding Me gained Indigenous Music Award nomination for Best Folk Album in the same year.
Currently, their songwriting focuses on finding positive aspects in some of life’s darkest situations. “Porchlight,” one of their most recent video productions, brings attention to indigenous women’s issues of domestic violence and disappearance. Finding sobriety also plays a key role in their music, with a minimum of ten years of being sober for each of them.
“There’s no way we could honestly speak about those issues if we were partaking in those things as well,” June said. “It’s one of those things where you lead by example but don’t push it on anyone else.”
The combination of honesty and harmony—and four years of serious songwriting—is the foundation of Twin Flames, their first collaborative effort, after their solo albums. The December 2015 release, Twin Flames Jaaji & Chelsea June, won them the Canadian Folk Music Award for Aboriginal Songwriters of the Year on December 3. They also received the Native American Music Awards’ Duo of the Year nominations in the past year.
The two of them have little separation between their personal and professional relationship. Jaaji said that, as a couple, they want “to beat the odds of people saying that relationships die down and people get sick of each other.”
Chelsea June added that “it’s really a partnership on every level.” However, the primary challenge with frequent touring—500 shows across Canada in the past two years—is spending time with their children. Between the two of them, they have six children ranging in age from four to 21.
Currently, their shows include a set of seven performers. At first, their fan base was centered on the northern, Arctic part of Canada and includes being part of the Folk on the Rocks festival bill in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Interest in their live performances now includes the southern parts of Canada.
“People were so interested in learning about us, our story and our culture,” June said. “That was a true testament right now to the change that is going on in our country. People are finally wanting to discover all that indigenous and Inuit cultures have to offer.”
At press time, the duo have not performed in the United States due to other commitments, but they hope to do so in the near future. While they perform on a frequent basis, they also have a selection of youth workshops that include curricula in music, substance abuse, self-esteem and Indigenous culture. The workshops are available in Inuktitut, English and French.
Jaaji’s message to indigenous songwriters is to “follow your heart, whatever your heart is willing to express for that moment, no matter what language that is,” he said. “Reach into yourself and reach into where you come from.”
June had similar words of encouragement, sharing a personal belief that songwriting comes from both a spiritual and cultural source.
“Any of the Original People, we all have this tremendous gift,” she said. “I think that we have a lot to share, with the rest of the world to discover. Even if it’s in your own language, go after that dream. If that dream is there, I truly believe that the Creator puts those dreams there for a reason.”